Complicating the stories we tell in business schools about indigenous peoples

by Jordyn Hrenyk and Emily Salmon /

Indigenous Peoples are not often acknowledged in business schools, and when we are, the discussions had are often decontextualized, simplistic, and divorced from the diversity of Indigenous Nations around the world. If we want business schools to contribute to “shared prosperity and public value”, as Carl Rhodes wrote in his recent blog, we as management educators need to address the anti-Indigeneity that gets layered into our syllabi. Globally, business schools need to indigenize and decolonize – not just for the benefit of Indigenous students, but for all our students and faculty, and for Indigenous Nations themselves. 

Understanding indigeneity

It’s important to begin with an understanding of who Indigenous Peoples are. As a cultural identifier, “Indigenous” is so broad that it has limited use for expressing the lived experience of any individual. In fact, many Indigenous people prefer to be identified only by their own Nation(s)’ names rather than as “Indigenous.” Furthermore, international bodies relevant to Indigenous organizing (principally the United Nations) resist a formal definition of ”Indigenous”, preferring “to identify, rather than define Indigenous Peoples”, using a list of flexible principles that reflect the diversity of Indigenous communities around the world. 

However, while on an individual level some resist the homogenizing identity as a political identity, the term “Indigenous” can enable meaningful, inter-National dialogue, organizing, and activism. The political identity also confers legal rights to Indigenous Nations and legal obligations onto the settler governments and the organizations that interact with them. It is imperative that business students learn how to interact with Indigenous Peoples and people, within both ethical and legal frameworks. 

Indigeneity in business school classrooms

Indigenous topics are generally integrated into business curricula through case studies. However, without cultural safety in mind, these discussions can do more harm than good. 

Firstly, case studies ask students to weigh in on business decisions, often within hours of learning about that context. This becomes problematic from an Indigenous perspective, because understanding Indigenous community decisions demands humility and a deep respect for that community’s historical and current context. It can be daunting to communicate all of this to students, so it is often left out of case discussions. 

Secondly, business case studies related to Indigenous Peoples have generally been written from a deficit perspective, meaning the authors emphasize the lower socio-economic indicators for Indigenous Peoples as compared to those of mainstream society, without recognizing the historical (and ongoing) systemic injustices that contribute to this disparity. These case studies thus pathologize Indigeneity and place blame for unequal conditions onto the communities that have been marginalized within their own homelands. 

Finally, in our classrooms, Indigenous Peoples are often positioned as a kind of Lorax: a mystical figure that appears before the true protagonists of the stories, speaking on behalf of the trees, and pleading with the protagonists to protect the environment – without the agency or authority to act on their own. Within these case discussions, Indigenous Nations are almost never framed as decision-makers, and are instead portrayed as a stakeholder to be managed, or an obstacle to be overcome. Ultimately, Indigenous Peoples are dehumanized, playing a passive role in which the firm (or, by proxy, the student) gets to decide what happens next.

Indigeneity ≠ sustainability

Indigeneity is nearly always introduced into business school curricula within the lens of sustainability, largely overlooking contributions of Indigenous scholars to fields like entrepreneurship, leadership, and management. Further, within the scope of sustainability, Indigeneity is usually discussed through case studies centered on resource development projects – as if Indigenous Peoples are only worth noticing when we are standing in the way of resource extraction companies.  

In this way, Indigenous Peoples are made one-dimensional in our classrooms. We are portrayed as nay-sayers who are for ‘sustainability’ (defined with western metrics) at any cost of economic development. This is obviously harmful to Indigenous students and Peoples, but it is also harmful to non-Indigenous students who are thus taught that Indigenous Peoples’ perspectives can be assumed or taken for granted.

Our intention is not to portray all Indigenous people as either pro- or anti-development, as we would then be guilty of the very thing we are critiquing. Rather, we hope to illustrate that Indigenous Peoples don’t inherently belong on any one side of a debate, and as sovereign Nations, they have the right to determine which stance is best for themselves. While many Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous people are deeply concerned about the disharmony of western society with the Earth’s natural cycles, within business education, we must acknowledge that being pro-Indigenous is not the same thing as being anti-development or anti-growth. Being pro-Indigenous means that we need to become pro-sovereignty, self-government, and self-determination. It means being in favour of Indigenous Peoples deciding for themselves what development should take place on their lands, rather than assuming that community outsiders know better, or that outsiders should weigh in at all. This is a complicated story to tell within the confines of a weekly case discussion.

When we as management educators continually tell a single story about Indigenous Peoples through our curricula, our students learn to see that story as the only truth and leave our programs unprepared to work with Indigenous Peoples safely and effectively. Indigenous people are not Loraxes; we do not exist to be the moral-environmental consciences of settler societies and we should be heard in business schools, beyond resource extraction case studies. 

A call for meaningful indigenization efforts 

We commend many business schools for their efforts to welcome Indigeneity into their institutions. These efforts are understandable on a spectrum from Indigenous inclusion to decolonial indigenization (Gaudry and Lorenz, 2018). However, many schools remain unprepared for or even opposed to decolonization. They may embrace decolonization in its cosmetic form, “grafted onto pre-existing discourses/frameworks” (Tuck and Yang, 2012: 3), but resist its central purpose: to bring forth Indigenous sovereignty and to make way for Indigenous futurity. We see case studies and other pedagogical tools as critical opportunities for meaningful indigenization that fills our schools with complex stories told by Indigenous Peoples from our perspectives. 

Therefore, we call for management educators to:

  1. Embrace complexity: We cannot bring Indigeneity into our classrooms with shortcuts. Understanding how Indigenous people do business, and understanding how businesses impact Indigenous Peoples demands an acknowledgment of the complexity of Indigenous experiences. We recommend getting specific and working to understand the experiences of Indigenous Peoples from your context. How are Indigenous Peoples participating in and being impacted by business in your community, country, or region of the world? How are companies and governments from your context interacting with Indigenous Peoples globally? Who are the Knowledge Keepers whose teachings can best guide you and your students? Look for teaching materials like case studies and textbooks written by Indigenous people to teach about Indigenous contexts. 
  2. Expand the discussion: We understand that Indigenous perspectives become salient within the framework of sustainability. However, we urge educators to integrate Indigenous theories into a broader range of topics including: leadership, entrepreneurship, strategy, and management. Indigenous theories have inherent value and incorporating these perspectives provides an opportunity for students to understand business through other ontologies and value systems.
  3. Follow your discomfort: We recognize that integrating Indigenous topics into existing courses can be daunting, especially when doing so for the first time. These topics inherently raise sensitive discussions, some of which we may feel unprepared to facilitate. However, these are important discussions that must be had. We encourage you to self-reflect, learn from Indigenous people (including community Knowledge Keepers, external scholars, and your colleagues), and – most importantly – to keep an open mind.

While business schools have not been known as bastions of social criticism, if we are ever to approach decolonization – or meaningful indigenization – we need to welcome nuance into our representations of Indigeneity in our classrooms. 

Jordyn Hrenyk is a PhD Candidate at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University, which is located on territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. She lives on these same territories now. Jordyn is Michif and belongs to the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan. Disciplinarily, Jordyn’s research exists at the intersections of Indigenous entrepreneurship and strategic management. Her research is focused on Indigenous business values and on modes of doing business that better comport with Indigenous values systems than mainstream modes.Emily Salmon is a PhD Candidate at the Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria, which is located on the territories of the Lekwungen-speaking Peoples of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. Emily is a member of the Cowichan Tribes and she lives in her home Territory. Emily’s research falls within the two broad themes of Strategic Management and Indigenous Management. Theoretically, Emily explores how stakeholder groups are able to capture and internalize diverse elements of value from their relationships with firms. To do this, she primarily draws upon Stakeholder Theory and the Value-Based literature. Emily’s research also includes Indigenous elements by primarily focusing on Indigenous perspectives and interests, and using Indigenous methodologies.

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